For Israel Diamonds Should Not Be Forever

June 9, 2010

The government of Israel has a chance to exercise valuable leadership on a critical international human rights issue — and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Israel holds the annual chairmanship of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international body designed to choke off the trade in “blood diamonds.” On June 21-23, Tel Aviv will host the first of two big Kimberley Process conferences this year, with a unique collection of bedfellows who have come together to keep the diamond trade from harming innocent people: representatives from more than 75 countries, large-scale private diamond traders, multinational companies and civil society activists who have helped make “blood diamonds” a cause célêbre.
The diamond wealth of West Africa provoked — and financed — a series of vicious local wars in the 1990s, and the Kimberley Process was meant to stem the public relations disaster that subsequently threatened the revenues of everyone from De Beers and the Kremlin to the corner jewelry shop. Consumers don’t like the idea that their engagement ring helped buy weapons that slaughtered thousands of civilians. Hollywood helped raise the profile of the issue with a Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster set in Sierra Leone in 1998.
An unusual blend of human rights idealism and commercial motives, the Kimberley Process is not an easy gathering to chair. Israel will have to deal with perhaps the most vexing issue of its chairmanship: what to do about diamonds from Zimbabwe.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe keeps himself in power by stealing elections, trumping up legal charges against members of the opposition and civil society, and having his political enemies tortured and even killed. He has reduced Zimbabwe, a country that had one of the highest levels of productivity and education in southern Africa, to a state of pitiful economic collapse. And now, in his late 80s, he has been blessed with a fantastic piece of serendipity: the discovery of potentially very large diamond fields in the eastern part of his bankrupted country. Those diamonds are helping to keep him in power.